In early May, officials from Iran and the United States intensified their rhetoric and the two archenemies seemed to be on the course to engage in a military confrontation. The Trump administration decided not to renew the waivers it had previously granted to a few countries to import Iranian oil and Tehran responded by suspending some of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/nuclear deal. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic was accused of being behind mysterious attacks on four oil tankers and a drone strike on a Saudi oil pipeline. It was also accused of planning an attack on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria (according to the New York Times). The United States responded by deploying an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and announced a plan to send more troops to the region.
By early June, the prospects for confrontation seem to have faded. President Donald Trump stated that his administration does not seek a regime change in Tehran and President Hassan Rouhani has suggested that negotiations can take place if the United States shows respect to his country. Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed interest in mediating the crisis between Tehran and Washington. After meeting with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States is ready to engage with Iran without any preconditions. These developments raise three important questions: Is a mutually acceptable face-saving compromise possible? What would such a compromise look like? And how would a détente between Tehran and Washington can contribute to a new security architecture in the Middle East?
Is it possible to reach a mutually beneficial compromise?
Since taking office, President Trump has sought to bring American troops home and avoid military confrontations. Several analysts have warned against a confrontation with Iran—a nation of more than eighty million people with a large network of proxies and allies and a key player in global energy market. On the other hand, being under unprecedented economic sanctions and the target of a “maximum pressure” strategy from the United States, Tehran has been practicing what its leaders call “strategic patience.” Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani and other Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that their country does not seek to go to war. Finally, one can argue that other regional powers do not want a war between Tehran and Washington since it would destabilize the region. Rather, it is likely that regional leaders prefer to see Washington containing their archenemy Tehran. Such a prolonged containment would ensure that ambitious economic and military development in Iran would be restrained.
In addition to this lack of political will to engage in a military confrontation, Iranian strategists have developed and adopted a strategy of asymmetric warfare. The U.S. Department of Defense defines such warfare as “the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.” Within this context Tehran has developed formidable naval, cyber and ballistic missile capabilities. These capabilities send a clear message that a military confrontation with Tehran (full-scale invasion, surgical strike or something different) would be costly. Finally, the wars in Afghanistan (started in 2001) and in Iraq (started in 2003) demonstrate that military confrontations develop lives of their own and show how hard it is to find a political solution to end the war. In other words, a major lesson from these two wars is that it is easier to get into a war than to get out of it. It is worth mentioning that Afghanistan and Iraq have small populations and the two countries have national identities that are not as strong as Iran’s national identity.
Against this background, it seems that political and military leaders in both Tehran and Washington have concluded that employing military options to address their strategic differences are not likely to succeed. The two sides would pay a high price and the entire region would suffer more political and economic chaos.
What would a compromise entail?
The Trump administration has expressed strong opposition to three key Iranian policies: (A) Tehran’s support to proxies and allies in regional conflicts; (B) its ballistic missile program; and most important (C) its nuclear program. A close examination of Tehran’s policies suggests that the Islamic Republic is not likely to change its stance on missile capabilities and regional conflicts and, rhetoric aside, would be open to a compromise on the nuclear program.
Iran is a Shiite and Persian nation in a largely Arab and Sunni Middle East, so it is a minority within its own neighborhood. Meanwhile, Tehran enjoys historical ties with ethnic and sectarian communities in several neighboring countries. These strong ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria and the Shiite militias in Iraq are considered in Tehran a matter of national security. Hezbollah gives Tehran the option of retaliation if Israel attacks. The Shiite militias and political parties in Iraq ensure that there will not be a hostile government in Baghdad similar to the ones prior to 2003 again.
Similarly, ballistic missiles give Tehran the capability to close the gap between its weak air force and those of the United States and its allies. The missiles mean Iran can retaliate and make any military escalation costly. Since the 1980s the Islamic Republic has invested heavily in developing a domestic missile program. As a result, the nation has a diversified missile programs and can reach almost anywhere in the Middle East. Iranian leaders see their missile capabilities as a matter of survival. They have already accepted not to increase the range of their existing missiles, but they are certain to keep working on improving their accuracy and are not likely to accept restrictions on testing and developing their arsenal.
Unlike regional policies and ballistic missiles, the nuclear program provides room for Tehran and Washington to find common ground. Iranian leaders have been consistent in denying any interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. They claim that the program has no military application and is solely for civilian purposes. During the negotiations that led to the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015, the Iranians rejected any restrictions on their missile capabilities but did accept temporary ones on their nuclear program. A compromise could include extending the restrictions Tehran has already accepted previously in return for lifting all sanctions (those related to the nuclear program as well as others related to terrorism and human rights). This revised deal could be ratified by the Senate and President Trump can claim that he negotiated a better deal than his predecessor did.
How can a compromise contribute to a new regional security architecture?
There is no doubt that the “maximum pressure” strategy is making life harder for the government of Tehran and the majority of Iranian people. Still, it is unlikely that the pressure will lead to a major policy shift. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was largely driven by hostility toward American penetration of Iranian government and society. For generations, Iranians have perceived their country to be a victim of interference by global powers including Russia, Britain, and now the United States. They believe these global powers have denied Iran the regional prominence it deserves. Economic sanctions are reinforcing this sense of victimization and are not likely to lead to a key policy shift.
A revised deal with Iran that entails compromises by all parties should not come at the expense of other regional powers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In recent weeks Tehran has proposed signing a non-aggression pact with its Arab neighbors, but Riyadh and Abu Dhabi rejected this overture. That said, tensions among Middle East countries could be reduced if Iran had better relationships with its neighbors. Arab countries do not need to see Iran as a common enemy in order to work together. Instead, major Middle East countries merely need to agree on an inclusive regional security architecture. This would be a win-win proposition and would pave a path towards global peace.
Gawdat Bahgat is a professor of national security at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government of the policies of the Department of Defense.